Ronny Cox Looks Back At "Chain of Command"
There you are, at a folk music festival or an intimate theater or even a local coffeehouse. And, dang, if that guy up on stage, the one strumming a guitar and singing mighty fine, doesn’t look just like that actor from Deliverance, The Onion Field, Taps, Beverly Hills Cop, RoboCop, Total Recall, Vision Quest, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate SG-1and The Starter Wife. Well, guess what? It is. And that’d be Ronny Cox, veteran actor extraordinaire, who these days is focusing most of his energy on his other career as a singer-songwriter-performer. He’s recorded several albums and tours constantly, with shows already lined up through 2011 and into 2012.
Star Trek fans will recall that Cox very memorably portrayed Captain Edward Jellico in the TNG episodes “Chain of Command, Part I” and “Part II.” Captain Jellico assumed command of the Enterprise while Picard participated in a clandestine mission, during which Picard was captured and tortured by the Cardassians. Jellico didn’t exactly make friends aboard the Enterprise, as his no-nonsense, “Get it done” approach infuriated the crew, particularly Riker. StarTrek.com caught up with Cox by telephone from somewhere on the road to reminisce about his stint in the Star Trek universe.
Let’s go back in time to 1992, to the sixth season of TNG, when you appeared in the “Chain of Command” two-parter…
Cox: We know that Picard was being tortured by the Cardassians, but just about everything on the ship was between Riker and Jellico. And I loved that aspect. Gene Roddenberry didn’t like conflict between the characters, so my guy was the first guy to come in and sort of ruffle everybody’s feathers. I liked that aspect of him. I also liked that he was a by-the-book guy. I loved it when Picard comes back to the Enterprise at the end and Jellico says, “Here’s your ship back, just the way you left it… maybe a little better.”
Was your role the result of an audition or an offer, and on paper, what did you think of Jellico?
Cox: It was an offer. And I loved the script. I loved doing the show. I’ve got to tell you, I’ve done a lot of things in my career, and I’ve got people in my family who think that’s the only thing of any worth I have ever done. (Laughs) I’m also a trivia answer. I’m one of the few actors, other than the show’s regulars, to have done a captain’s log on TNG.
Some fans think he’s pretty unlikable…
Cox: I know, and I never saw him as an unlikable character. I think there were a lot of things that he did that were really important for that show. Having Troi put on a damn uniform? Give me a break! This is an officer on a ship and she’s running around with her boobs hanging out? I’ll tell you something else that people might not know. Jellico made them take the fish (which was named Livingston) out of the ready room. And here’s a secret: Patrick (Stewart) hated the fish in the ready room. Patrick was always after them to take the fish out of the ready room. His point – and it’s a point well taken – was, “We’re doing a series about the species of the universe, about the dignity of different species, and we have a captured species swimming around in the ready room? That’s immoral.” So he never wanted the fish there. Now, it makes for pretty good production values to have those fish swimming around, so visually I could understand why the producers wanted to do it. So, them having me take the fish out of the ready room was actually sort of a bone they threw to Patrick.
People involved with TNG were very protective of Stewart’s captain’s chair. How did everyone react to having you there? And did you bring much of Jellico to your demeanor on set or once they called “Cut” you were yourself again?
Cox: Everyone was great. I couldn’t have been treated more cordially by everybody. And you have to know this about me, and I’m not saying it to brag, but I’m known not only as a good actor, but as one of the nicer people in the world. I don’t believe in carrying the darker aspects of characters with me. When we cut, I’m Ronny.
Are you aware of how well regarded the “Chain of Command” two-parter is among fans? It’s usually rated in the top five of all the TNG episodes.
Cox: I had heard that. I’m honored about that. I loved playing Jellico. Like I said, I never saw him as a villain. He was a bit of a hard-ass, but not a villain. I thought he dealt with the Cardassians really well and I thought he ran the Enterprise really well, though in a completely different style from Picard. But that episode had a lot going for it. Patrick was brilliant. So was Jonathan (Frakes). So was David Warner. And the story was compelling.
Was there ever talk of bringing Jellico on board again?
Cox: Yes, there was. And then it just sort of didn’t happen. You know how those things go. Everyone was pleased with Jellico and I would have cleared some decks to work on that show again, but I only did those two (episodes).
Let’s switch to the present, which actually has a Trek connection. You recently shot Truth Be Told, a family movie that will air April 16 on Fox and was directed by Jonathan Frakes. Please give us a preview.
Cox: It’s a wonderful little story set in New Mexico, and I’m delighted to be here filming in New Mexico, which is my home state. I play a sort of bigger-than-life character, a really wealthy rancher who’s a business mogul and also owns radio and television stations. The set-up is that there’s a young woman, being played by Candace Cameron (Bure), who’s a marriage counselor, and David James Elliott is a former football player. My character is interested in having her do a marriage counseling show for his station, and things happen from there. Candace and David are the romantic leads of it, and I think it’s going to be really good.
You’ve recorded eight albums and you’re on a Bob Dylan-esque never-ending tour. Your music seems to be taking precedence over acting these days. Would you agree?
Cox: Absolutely. I did, I think, 125 music shows in 2010. So I’ve been doing almost exclusively my folk music stuff. I lost my wife four years ago, and Mary was my whole life. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a great career. I was in a few great movies. I’m not rich, but I have enough money. And the things that give me the most pleasure now are the music shows because they’re an opportunity for a one-on-one sharing that means so much to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies and television shows and plays. But you can’t step through that camera, through the lens, and communicate one-on-one with people. You can’t even quite do it on stage. With my music shows, there is that possibility. I sing and I tell stories, and I find that a really compelling opiate.
Would you say that one comes more naturally to you, acting or singing?
Cox: I think they’re both of a piece. I really can’t separate them. In the best of all possible worlds, I’d get to do both. Actually, they’re thinking about using my music in that TV movie with Jonathan, and that’d best of all worlds for me. The movie is a (backdoor) pilot, so if we go to series it’d be an ongoing role for me and, hopefully, an ongoing opportunity to sing, too. But I love music, acoustic music. I probably started singing before I started acting. I was cutting albums when I was still in high school, actually. I recorded at the Norman Petty Studio in Clovis, New Mexico, which is where Buddy Holly recorded “Peggy Sue” and The Fireballs recorded “Sugar Shack.” I got my first film, Deliverance, because I could play guitar. My second big film was Bound for Glory. That was the Woody Guthrie film, and so I picked and sang in that. My first television series was a show called Apple’s Way, and I picked and sang a song on that every week.
Early in my career everyone knew I was this actor from New Mexico who also played music. What happened was that for the last 25 or 30 years I had so much success playing guys of authority – like Jellico in Star Trek, Senator Kinsey in Stargate, or the President, or military men, or the guys in Total Recall and RoboCop and Beverly Hills Cop – that when people see me with a guitar in my hand it’s amazing to them.
To learn more about Ronny Cox and to see if he’ll be playing his music in your town any time soon, visit his official web site at www.ronnycox.com.